Social support

Dear Alice,

Why is social support important to an individual's health and wellness?

Dear Reader,

To help answer this question, you might want to first try picturing your happiest memory. For many people, the image that comes to mind involves friends, family, peers, or pets. These groups are common constituents of a social support network — or who you turn to when you need guidance and reassurance. Membership in these networks may help fight feelings of loneliness, fear, and stress (along with associated health effects of these feelings), while helping you feel appreciated, valued, and as though you belong. Social support encompasses more than advice — it’s any form of emotional or physical assistance (more on the types in a bit). If you’re feeling as though your network is waning, it’s not too late to forge or reignite existing relationships and reap the benefits of social support!

Social support may help people buffer the effects of stress, reduce feelings of loneliness, lower blood pressure, improve self-esteem, and enhance autonomy (which can help people cope with problems on their own). When social interactions produce feelings of happiness, the body releases endorphins (pleasure-inducing hormones), which can not only improve mental well-being, but may improve physical well-being, too. Conversely, if social support is lacking, warding off stress, sadness, and other negative emotions such as loneliness may be tougher. When a person experiences fear or stress, the body often responds physically with a spike in blood pressure and cortisol levels (the stress-response hormone). Having emotional support, though, triggers the release of hormones that prevent or reduce these reactions, lessening their toll on the body. The good news is that at any age, stage, or place in life, it’s possible to cultivate new relationships and plant the seeds for a flourishing future social support network.

Support can come from a variety of people and in many different forms. For example, your handy carpenter friend may help you fix your broken table but may not be the person you turn to for relationship advice. Behaviors that express social support are usually split into five categories, which work together to keep your mental and physical health in tip-top shape. It’s worth noting that each member of a person’s social support network usually doesn’t provide all types of support at all times. When these five types of support come together, it may contribute to a sense of mental well-being:

  • Emotional support: This usually manifests as expressions of love and caring, oftentimes from family and close friends, which contribute to your sense of self-worth. Whether it's a hug or an "I love you," this type of support is the most intimate.
  • Instrumental or tangible support: Offering a helping hand or any other sort of physical and monetary aid falls into this category of support. Examples of this may include giving a friend a ride to work if their car breaks down or taking care of a neighbor's pets while they’re on vacation.
  • Informational support: As the name implies, this includes providing beneficial information, advice, or suggestions on how to address certain issues. Although this could come from a variety of people, one example would be a health care provider offering information on how best to address a medical concern. Another might be asking questions and checking out the Q&A archives on Go Ask Alice!.
  • Appraisal or esteem support: More loosely defined than the others, appraisal or esteem support is the giving of information that allows a person to further evaluate themselves. For example, this type of support may include constructive feedback or affirmation of ideas or notions (e.g., “I trust your judgment" or "That was a wise decision").
  • Social network support: A more recent addition to the categories of support, this type includes particular messages of belonging to a group with similar interests or environments. For example, these are social ties (either digitally or in-person) that allow groups of people to connect and feel companionship.

As in any relationship, social support is a two-way street. In order to receive support, it’s helpful to give support, too. In fact, some researchers believe that the health effects of giving social support may be even greater than for getting it! Are you worried about having lost touch with some people in your social support network? Fret not — there are ways to bolster social support if you feel like it’s lacking. You might try reaching out to a friend you know is struggling or making plans with a friend you haven't talked with in a while. Reminding them how much of a priority they are to you can demonstrate your investment and appreciation for the relationship. You could also think about whether you’re taking some relationships for granted. Interestingly, people tend to underreport social support that comes from a family member, possibly because familial relationships are seen as unconditional or less voluntary.  

You might also consider taking stock of your existing relationships. Are you giving more support in a relationship than you’re receiving? Is a relationship causing you more stress than stress-reducing benefits? It can be hard to prioritize your own needs, but keep in mind that it’s critical to care for yourself even when you’re looking out for others. At the same time, while it can take a lot of courage to ask for help, sometimes you may need to reach out to your network first. A common concern people report is that they’re burdening others by asking for help. However, if you’re appreciative, respectful of others’ time, and return the favor down the line, your network may be happy to help! If you're looking to build new relationships, you could check out clubs or groups in your community, city, or school that center around shared hobbies or interests. Many people find volunteering, fitness classes, religious groups, or online social networking as a pathway to growing their network. If you find it overwhelming to reach out to others, you may consider speaking with a mental health professional who can provide guidance on building social skills or referring you to a support group.

A social support network can be developed or expanded at any time — these efforts can help ensure you have a safety net of support when stressful events inevitably arise. And it’s truly the quality of relationships — sustained by time, support, and appreciation — not the quantity that leads to ongoing fulfillment. Whatever way you find your sources of emotional, instrumental (tangible), informational, appraisal (esteem), and social network support, they may help improve your mental and physical health, as well as add to your cache of happy memories.

Last updated Dec 04, 2020
Originally published Nov 19, 2010

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